Monday, March 11, 2013


Growing up, I always laughed at my mother's annual birthday litany. Every year, on the morning of the last day of November, she would recite the details of the day of my birth; as the years go on she does so almost apologetically, though we both know I'd be disappointed if she didn't.  And of course, as these things tend to go, I've started the same tradition with my kids--though I feel a bit more justified in telling and re-telling Sydney's extraordinary story.

Ya'll know she was born 3 weeks after Katrina, right?  We'd fled to Houston, 38 weeks pregnant, and settled in there for the long haul, with doctors and delivery unit tours and multiple Target runs (we'd left everything in New Orleans, except the car seat).  When Hurricane Rita came to Houston, I was 3 days overdue, and we had to flee again--I remember looking back through the rear window and seeing the long line of gridlocked traffic behind us as we moved towards Arkansas.  It took us 3 days to get to my mom's house in Orlando, arriving late on that Friday night; Sydney was born the very next day.  When Hurricane Wilma tore through Fort Lauderdale, 6 weeks later, and destroyed the building where Cade's company had set up a temporary office, we packed up and moved back to our quiet, ruined city. The Red Cross truck brought me lunch every day, and the National Guardsmen stationed at the end of our block helped out with all sorts of post-Katrina dilemmas.  It was a sad and scary time, but also a relief: it looked like our city would survive, perhaps even thrive.

Look at those cheeks.
January came and it was time for me to return to work.  Problem was, the childcare sector in New Orleans had taken a huge hit; about 15% of the centers in operation before Katrina had survived the storm (some had flooded, others had to close due to lack of income).  It felt like an impossible situation--how can you live, work, and raise a family in the city you love, when said city has no childcare? I could have chosen not to work, but as a social worker felt compelled to do so, given the enormous psychosocial tasks that lie ahead.  Employing a nanny was neither cost-effective or aligned with what we wanted for our daughter--we wanted a community, wanted her in the company of other Katrina babies.  Also, selfishly, I was hungry for company and community.

Luckily, I'd stumbled upon a group of parents who, in November 2005, had come together with the crazy idea of opening their own childcare center.  I remember being a little mystified by the endeavor; how do you just...create something like that?  Where do you even start?  But they had--they had permits and licenses and a little cottage on Oak Street, and a Board of Directors and bylaws and even an Executive Director.  It was the real deal.

It took a few months of ramp-building and teacher-hiring and painting and collecting second-hand toys and furniture, but a little less than a year after the storm, Abeona House opened.  Here's a picture of Sydney from the opening day.

On the first anniversary, we had a "birthday" party and unveiled our fancy new sign:

There was also ice cream.

Just after our second anniversary, I joined the Board of Directors.  I was immediately surprised by the challenges that remained, and impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness of the community.  It was obvious, early on, that we'd have to get bigger if we wanted to survive--but expansion still seemed like a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, Sydney thrived, and Evan was born (those 2 events are not connected, trust me).

Taken seconds before he spewed in her face.
Abeona House thrived, too.  We had Mardi Gras and Halloween parades, art shows and concerts in the backyard.  Sydney graduated and moved on to Big School, I witnessed her self-possession and compassion in that new environment, and I knew it was in large part because of her time at Abeona House.  (How do I know this?  Because I help out a lot with teacher interviews, after they've gone through 2 rounds of in-class observations, and the vast majority of them tell me, unprompted, how kind and confident and imaginative the kids are.  I call that empirical evidence.)

Syd and Ms. Alli
2 years ago this April, I took the reins as Board Chair, with some trepidation but also with resolve. In that first meeting we all agreed that it was time to expand, and made that our 2-year goal.  7 months later, we moved into a new building across town, where we doubled in size, hired a chef and added a farm-to-table food program, and set about the business of becoming what we had always been poised to be: a model of early childhood education in New Orleans.

Emmy, our Founding Director (look at her! Isn't she awesome?!)

Totally awesome.

and Aliza, the Center Director (here she is with Sydney at the "old Abeona")

Also awesome.
have spent the last several years creating a program that is thoughtful rather than reactive, that emphasizes mutual respect among teachers, children, and families, and that strives to make children both visible and responsible.  So much of the success of this work is dependent upon the teachers, and though I know I'm biased, I truly believe we have the best group of teachers on the planet.  They love our children, they spend hours developing projects and documenting--they are rock stars.

Here is Evan's teacher, Ms. Jaime, and the letter she wrote for his documentation binder after she first started at Abeona House:
Dear Evan,
Since I'm the new preschool teacher, it has taken a while for the classroom to become comfortable with me; it's tough for me too.  I know it's hard for you to fully trust me as your teacher and caretaker.  I understand it takes a while to build a bond and I want you to know that I love you, and I care so much about you.  I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything and everything!  I want you to know you can find comfort in my arms when you feel sad or really happy.  You are so unique and special.  I think you are very sweet and caring to your friends.  You are such a funny boy with a silly personality! I see you coming around; I can't wait until you are ready for me to fully be a part of your life.

Ms. Jaime

Can you read that without getting a little weepy?  Didn't think so.

Ms. Nicole was Sydney's teacher at the Old Abeona, and though she doesn't teach in Evan's classroom, she does come to his soccer games.
Evan loves Ms. Cole
These teachers work tirelessly and with exceptional dedication, because they love our kids and they believe in Abeona House.  I love them.  Don't you love them?

On top of the stellar pedagogy and exceptional teaching staff, Abeona House is committed to improving the quality of early childhood education throughout the New Orleans community.  This isn't some silly mission-statement jargon that we have to come up with for a brochure; this is the real deal.  So what does that mean?  It means our Director has spearheaded the formation of a Shared Services Alliance that will help strengthen business development for childcare centers in the GNO region. It means our center has undertaken the formidable task of earning stars under the state's Quality Rating System, which requires teachers to earn credentials in early childhood education (this in turn means books and coursework, as well as tax credits for teachers and families).  It means that our food program, which emphasizes fresh, healthful, locally-grown meals (think black bean empanadas with homemade yogurt cheese and chickpea and sweet potato gumbo--yes, the kids eat this stuff!) is garnering attention from other centers, and we're working towards sharing resources and knowledge with them.  It means that we're dedicated to improving the quality of life for teachers, children, and families throughout our region, not just in theory, but in practice.

Last year we created the Ira Herman Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition assistance to families in need of support.  Remember Aliza? We love her. The fund is named after her father, who was a huge supporter of our school and who passed away last year.  This fund is supported entirely through fundraising events, like the upcoming Reggio Run, where parents, teachers, and alums collect pledges to run, jog, or walk the Crescent City Classic 10k (on March 30th this year).  Last year we raised $13,000 for the school--this year we hope to raise $15,000.  

2010 Reggio Run
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Henry David Thoreau: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."  7 years ago, we built a castle on the remains of a ruined city, and I'm happy to say our foundation is growing stronger and stronger.  We've created a fantastic program that is changing the face of early childhood education here in NOLA, and I could not be any prouder of what we've accomplished.  My tenure on the Board is up next month, and Evan will graduate in May (sniff), but I have no doubt that our family will be connected to Abeona House for many years to come.  At the risk of sounding grandiose (what the hell, why not), I truly believe that this is how healthy communities are built: through citizen engagement, creativity, and dedication, one project, one family at a time.

If you love our family, if I've sold you on this place and what we do, please consider sponsoring my run on March 30th.  If you're so inclined, you can do so through the website ( or, if you're still paying for stamps, by mailing a check to the Center (3401 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119).  It's tax-deductible.  It's for the children. And I'll love you forever.

Your Friend,